Edwidge Danticat, Everything Inside (riverrun 2019)
Edwidge Danticat (Haitian Creole pronunciation: ɛdwidʒ dãtika) is a Haitian-born writer whose first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994. Since then she has published other novels, short stories, children’s and Young Adult books, memoirs essays – a substantial body of work. Everything Inside, a collection of eight short stories, is the first of her books I’ve read, but I didn’t feel I was coming in late. Each of the stories is a fresh beginning, inviting the reader to enter into the lives, and in some cases deaths, of a newly-created group of characters.
Almost all the characters are Haitian immigrants to the US, or come from other Caribbean nations. The stories mostly focus on relationships among women, often but not always with men in the mix – a dying father, one corner of a love triangle, an ex who has suffered a terrible loss, a sexual exploiter, the prime minister of a small Caribbean island nation. (The least successful story, ‘Without Inspection’, is the only one with a man at its centre.)The women’s relationships cross generational and class barriers, so that what emerges from the stories taken as a whole is a complex picture of Haitian diasporic life. In ‘Hot-Air Balloons’, for instance, a young woman’s college non-Haitian room-mate goes on a working trip to Haiti where she sees at first hand the terrible suffering of poor women at a rape recovery centre in a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. The room-mate decides at first to quit college in order to volunteer for the non-government organisation that arranged her trip. The young woman who stays behind does so because she wants her first experience of her parents’ home to be of its physical beauty, not of its suffering people. The story is told with deep sympathy for both points of view, but in the end we are left with an aching sense of the gulf between the hard-won privilege of the protagonist and those women at the rape centre.
The 2010 earthquake looms as a backdrop to some of the stories. Poverty and corruption in Haiti and Miami, and the US’s immigration regime have devastating effects on people’s lives, but the stories complex human beings remain front and centre. As I read this book, I had at the back of my mind a quote from W E B Dubois in the ‘backmatter’ of the Afican-American comic series, Bitter Root (my blog post here):
All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.(Criteria of Negro Art, 1926)
If this book is propaganda, it lacks the stridency or sense of hidden agendas usually associated with that term. But my admittedly pretty uninformed guess is that W E B Dubois would approve of it as it asserts as reality that ‘black folk’ do love and enjoy as well as laugh, weep, make music, form unbreakable childhood bonds, and face difficult moral dilemmas.